“Trip-and-fall” lawsuits litter civil court dockets: a person gets hurt after a slip or stumble, then sues whoever is responsible for taking care of the property. Might be the Transit Authority’s slippery stairs, or the hotel mogul’s rumpled lobby rug, or the Education Department’s uneven school sidewalk, or whatever else you can think of.
Rarely do any of these suits catch the eye. But then there’ll be one like this: NYPD Sergeant Donald Mulham is suing the city after injuring his leg and shoulder while searching for a suspect in a garbage-filled, city-owned vacant lot.
The Richmond County Supreme Court initially dismissed his lawsuit last year. Last week, however, judges in the appellate division reversed that decision, ruling that Mulham does have grounds to hold the city responsible for his injury.
Mulham had chased the suspect into the Staten Island lot on September 5, 2008.
“The lot was strewn with debris such as radios, stereos, and hundreds of red-colored crates,” according to court documents.
Among the debris, Mulham saw “a structure with a base measuring five feet by five feet fashioned out of, among other things, wood, sticks, fabrics, and crates. He jumped onto a plywood platform at the base of the structure. The wood snapped and his right foot fell through, injuring Mulham’s right knee and right shoulder.
Mulham filed a complaint against the city in February. He cited the city’s health code, which states that the manager of a property is responsible for keeping the it “free from obstructions and nuisances” and “free from garbage, refuse, rubbish, litter, or other offensive matter or accumulation of water.”
The court rejected his claim, ruling that the law Mulham’s suit cited was a regulation “affecting mere sanitation,” and did not apply to his injury claims.
The appellate division disagreed with this interpretation, as the Brooklyn Eagle first reported.
“Although, as the Supreme Court concluded, prohibitions against littering may be primarily directed toward aesthetic and health considerations, they also serve the purpose of keeping sidewalks and lots free of refuse that may present a tripping hazard,” the appeals court stated in a unanimous decision.
Usually the city can be liable for negligence only when it had received prior notice about a property’s hazardous conduction. In this case, the court notes, notice was not a prerequisite because of a law granting special rights for emergency workers injured in duty.
As a result, Mulham “must only establish that the circumstances surrounding the violation indicate that it was a result of neglect, omission, or willful or culpable negligence on the defendant’s part,” the court stated. “As the owner of the subject lot, the City failed to demonstrate that the plaintiff’s injury was not the result of its alleged neglect of its property.”
Click through for the texts of the Supreme Court and Appellate Division decisions.
Next: the Appellate Division decision.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 24, 2013